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Lost in translation – do you know what your cat is really trying to tell you?

‘Miaow!’  One simple word, so many possible meanings.  Is she happy?  Is she hungry?  Is she scared?  It’s all in the tone in which it’s delivered.  And that’s just the miaow – researchers have documented 19 different vocal patterns in domestic cats ranging from purrs to chirps to growls, along with countless body language cues.  Do you really know how to interpret them?  Test your feline language skills below… A deep, rhythmic purr We'll start with an easy one – a purr means she’s happy, right?  Possibly, but that may not always be the case.  In fact, cats purr for many reasons.  Young kittens and mother cats purr during nursing, possibly as a way of maintaining contact and communicating contentment.  Adult cats purr when they're in the company of other cats or humans that they are friendly with, especially during grooming or petting or resting together.  And as most cat owners probably already know, they also purr when they want something.  This ‘solicitation’ purr contains some of the high frequency peaks also found in a human baby’s cry, and it is commonly thought that cats use this to their advantage when asking for food at 5am.  But what many people don't know is that cats will sometimes also purr when they are nervous or even painful.  We don't know exactly why they do it, but the important thing to remember is that purring doesn't necessarily mean that a cat is happy, you need to look at the rest of their body language for clues.  Think of it like a human smile – we do it when we're happy, but also when we want something or when we're nervous. Blinking, half-closed eyes If you said this is a sign of contentment, you would be absolutely right.  A cat who stares without blinking is alert and confrontational, while a cat with half closed eyes is relaxed and feels safe in their environment.  Interestingly, this is one of the few ways that we can truly speak their language.  I use it all the time whilst consulting – before starting my exam, I catch their eye briefly and then blink slowly as if to say ‘It’s ok, you're safe here’.  They almost always respond by blinking back, and are then much more likely to relax while I do what I need to do.  But even this isn't always the case, as a cat in pain can also have squinty eyes, but the rest of their body language will be very different. The tail flick This is a really useful one to know as it can save you a scratch or two!  If you are petting your cat and notice that they start to flick their tail quickly from side to side, I'd suggest you take a break because it probably either means that they're getting fed up with what you're doing or they're getting playful and are ready to pounce!  Often accompanied with a widening of the eyes which may help you recognise their increasing level of alertness. Wee on the carpet This may not seem like a method of communication, or at least you probably won't be thinking rationally enough to see it as such at the time, but cats frequently use urine and even faeces as a way of getting their point across.  One of the first words that comes to mind when you discover such an incident is probably ‘spite’, but try not to take it personally and instead try to figure out why it may have occurred.  It may be that they are painful and need to see the vet, or that they are unhappy with your neighbour’s cat who keeps peering in on them from the window.  If the culprit is an intact male cat, talk to your vet about castration because there is a good chance that the underlying reason is territorial. Grooming Although this is usually associated with relaxed, friendly cats or members of the same family, grooming may serve another purpose.  Like the nervous purr, cats sometimes groom each other’s heads and necks when they're feeling intimidated or antagonistic, possibly as an attempt to avoid overt aggression.  Chances are they're feeling pretty comfortable when they start grooming you, although I have on occasion had a ‘nervous licker’ during an exam and even known a few cats to lick forcefully before they bite. Chirping It’s a funny sound, almost like a very excited miaow but broken and muted at times.  Often associated with a tail twitch and very wide eyes, it is a sign of extreme interest.  My cat regularly ‘chirps’ when looking out the window at the birds on the feeder.  An amusing, hopeful sound indeed! Scratching on your new leather sofa Again, try not to push human emotions onto your cat and assume that they're doing it to get back at you for going out to dinner instead of spending time with them the night before.  In actual fact, cats have scent glands on the bottoms of their feet and between their toes so scratching (including the visual signs that are left behind) is another method of letting other cats know that this is their territory.  Make an effort to find out the underlying cause, or at least be sure to provide them plenty of other more suitable places to ‘sharpen their claws’. Hissssssssss! No surprises here, if you hear this sound, back off.  Cats are instinctively tuned into this sound and are therefore easily frightened by any noise that resembles a hiss such as aerosol spray cans or our own frantic ‘psssssssst!’ when we catch them up on the kitchen counter.  If their hiss escalates to a spit, don’t just back off, turn and walk away.  Quickly. If you were surprised by some of the answers above, spend some time observing your cat over the next few weeks.  You’ll be amazed by what you find when you know what to look for!  Even those fluent in ‘felinese’ can learn something new from their cats every day.  The more you understand what your cat is trying to tell you, the better your relationship will be so it’s definitely worth the effort.
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Ask a vet online – ‘My 3 year old yorkie gets very destressed when left on his own howling and barking, neighbours are complaining’

Question from Sue Michele Whitehouse My 3 year old yorkie gets very destressed when left on his own howling and barking, neighbours complain so I try and take him wherever possible with me, but sometimes this isn't possible and he can sense I am going out and starts getting upset before I even leave him.........thanks Hi Sue, and thank you for your question about your Yorkshire terrier. What you have described your dog as suffering from sounds very much like a condition known as Separation Anxiety. I will try to explain what separation anxiety is, how it affects dogs and some ways to try and combat it. Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet) So what is Separation Anxiety? Separation Anxiety (SA) as the name suggests is when your pet becomes worried and or distressed when alone. There are many ways in which dogs can show their distress including vocalising (barking and howling), chewing at furniture or themselves (often chew or lick at paws), toileting in the wrong place, pacing around, hiding, drooling and generally being miserable. Why do some dogs suffer from Separation Anxiety (SA)? As with most behaviour related problems there is not a definite explanation as to why a particular dog develops a condition such as SA but it may well be related to poor socialisation as a puppy or changes in the household. The peak socialisation period for a puppy is around 1-2 months of age, during this time it is really important that your puppy is exposed to lots of different people, animals, places and situations. Household changes can include: moving house, new family members, new pets and changes to family members daily routine such as starting a new job. How to try and avoid Separation Anxiety? It is really important to check that your dog is in good health and that you are not assuming a problem to be behavioural when an underlying medical condition exists. If you are in any doubt then take your dog to your vet for a full health examination and also to discuss treatment options. All dogs benefit from a good diet, fresh water, regular exercise and mental stimulation appropriate for its life stage. We assume that once dogs have grown up from being puppies that they are not as interested in playing, if you give your dog to opportunity to play you will realise how much they still love it. It can be helpful to make a weekly chart of games to play with your dog to remind you to keep things varied. Try and choose activities that you and your dog enjoy such as: fetching a ball, finding hidden treats, heel work, agility work, grooming, bathing and massage. It is also worth making sure your dog is slowly introduced to having time apart from you so that they can adjust gradually to longer periods of separation. Always make sure that your dog has had chance to toilet and has a safe comfortable place to rest. It is also worth trying to reduce the triggers for your dog’s SA by leaving the house in a quiet and subtle way. By having your shoes, bag, coat and keys all ready and close to the exit it will be less obvious that you are leaving and hopefully less stressful for your dog. A lot of owners think that by making a fuss over their pet and explaining that they will be home soon they are helping SA but unfortunately this just acts another trigger for your dog to become stressed. It is more important to positively reinforce your dog’s good behaviour on your return home and never punish it for its distressed behaviour. I strongly believe that negative reinforcement does not help owner or dog. Some pets also benefit from background noise such as having the television or radio on so the house is not so quiet and they feel less alone. What can I get to help reduce the symptoms of Separation Anxiety? Pheromones such as the DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) can help reduce anxiety in some dogs. Pheromones are chemicals that are specific to a particular species of animal, the DAP products (plug in diffuser, spray and collars) contains an artificial version of a pheromone that helps to relieve stress in dogs. Correct use of pheromones along with a change to how you approach leaving the house can help reduce SA. Behaviour modifying drugs, these include Valium related chemicals and antidepressants can also help to reduce SA but must be used under the direction of your vet. What do I tell the Neighbours? It is worth talking to your neighbours and explaining that you are aware that your dog barking is really annoying for them and that you are working with your vet to try and reduce the problem. Most people will appreciate you acknowledging the problem and that you are working towards stopping it but that it will take time. I hope that this answer has been helpful and that your dog manages to overcome his Separation Anxiety. Shanika Winters VetMB MRCVS (online vet) If you are worried that your dog is behaving strangely please see your vet or use our online symptom checker for guidance